Another Movie About the Iraq War That’s Not About Iraq: The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker, a US wartime drama directed by Catherine Bigelow has garnered an impressive number of Oscar nominations. I saw it last summer and thought it was a good drama, and then thought nothing more about it. So it’s a bit of a shock that it’s suddenly back in the public eye. Let me give you a bit of background. The Director has a mixed record. She was riding high for a while with her tense psychological thriller Blue Steel (1989), about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who freezes up at an armed robbery, and enters into a sort of a sexual battle with the killer. But Bigelow’s career crashed to a halt with the meandering and pointlessly long science fiction drama Strange Days. Not coincidentally, it was written by her then husband, James Cameron. Yeah, him.
So here she is, back again, directing a tense drama.
The Hurt Locker is about Sergeant James, a new replacement in a US squadron that meticulously defuses bombs set by insurgents in Iraq. To the horror and dismay of his fellow soldiers, James behaves like a sort of a superhero, shrugging off the padded suits and headgear, brazenly walking right into the middle of things, picking up bombs and pulling them apart – seemingly unaware, or unwilling to admit that he could get his head blown off in a second. When you gotta go, you gotta go, is his attitude.
He gets along better with an Iraqi kid who plays with a soccer ball near the bass camp – he calls him Beckham – than with his teammates. The danger and violence wear him down, but his true fear comes when he sheds his uniform and is forced to deal with the mundane reality of his life at home, back in America.
The Hurt Locker is one of a long stream of American movies about the war in Iraq – Jarhead (2005), Redacted (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and the very good documentary Gunner Palace (2004)– but they all have the same problem: they all take the point of view of US soldiers who, seemingly through no fault of their own, find themselves in a strange country engaged in a senseless war filled with violence, death, and murder. Very much like US movies about the war in Vietnam. But you almost never see a scene in any of these movies, including The Hurt Locker, that is told through the eyes of the Iraqis.
Now American movies, or movies from any country for that matter, are going to take the viewpoint of people the viewer can identify with, and it’s always easier to identify with the people who look or sound like you.
But it’s almost disingenuous to portray the US military in general as finding itself there in Iraq — just coincidentally — as opposed to being part of the same army that invaded it on false pretenses.
The one exception to this is documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s great, unreleased feature drama Battle for Haditha, made in 2008, in which he shifts back and forth between Iraqi civilians, insurgents, US soldiers on the ground, and officers far away at computer consoles pressing buttons and giving orders. It’s one of the few Iraq war movies that lets the audience see the war the way some Iraqi civilians see it, from inside their own homes.
The Hurt Locker is a good, tense, drama, with great acting – especially unknown Jeremy Renner in the main role. It has some interesting details – the soldiers spend their off hours playing the video game Call of Duty, shooting up the enemy for fun. But it also reduces an actual shootout – like one stalemate in the desert where they shoot at snipers poking up their heads in different windows of an abandoned house on a hill – to what seems like nothing more than a game of whak-a-mole.
– Daniel Garber, February 5, 2010